Q&A: Quotations versus Dialogue

Q: I have literally hundreds of quotes in my autobiography, and after reading your post about them, I’m really confused. Most of what I’m writing about is not quoting a known source like Mark Twain. Rather, it’s in the form of he said, “blah, blah, blah” when I’m relating a story or incident. I don’t even know if this deserves quote marks, and I have been very inconsistent in how I use them.

A: What you’re describing is dialogue, which is different from quotations. Continue reading

Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks

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The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption. Continue reading

Using Ellipses in Dialogue

Punctuation is hard to master in everyday writing. Fiction adds a layer of complexity because of the different way dialogue is punctuated. As if commas weren’t hard enough to wrangle on their own, dialogue puts a special twist on a couple of marks that don’t otherwise see a lot of use.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

In nonfiction writing, ellipses are used only to show omissions. But they have a special use in dialogue to indicate a trailing off of the character’s speech.

using quotation marks

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Remember our flustered presenter from last time?

“I guess …” she clicked around, vainly searching for the right version. “Looks like … I think I misplaced the new version.”

Continue reading

Use speech and action to convey emotion

Many new writers—and, frankly—some experienced writers—take a short cut in first draft writing by using labels to convey emotion. Do what you must to get through the first draft, but our editing pass is the time to root those things out and replace them with something meaningful.

Emotional states are shown through speech and action rather than dialogue tags.

This item happens to be under Dialog only because tags are where this often shows up. But emotion labeling can occur in narrative also. Sometimes, you do just need to drop a label in, but more often, it’s best to use the dialog and action to convey the emotion. A first draft might look something like this: Continue reading

Use dialogue tags wisely

Dialogue tags seem simple, but in practice they are a complex element that many new writers fail to appreciate. One characteristic that distinguishes great writing from good writing is the efficient and elegant use of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags convey meaningful information, such as action beats.

One of the first things writers learn is that a simple he said is almost always preferable to more complex constructions like he pronounced or she observed. I only put that almost in there because I’m not one to forbid something outright. But really, the best writers just don’t do that.

dialogue tags

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Some editors advise against using all speech verbs except said and asked, but that’s going too far. Speech verbs exist for a reason, and can be used judiciously. Just remember they are like spice. Use sparingly. Continue reading

Use dialogue to move story forward

Back in my college days, I had the great opportunity to take a writing course from TV comedy writer Danny Simon. He taught us a lot in that class, and I’ve probably forgotten most of it, but I kept my notes, so I can always go back and check.

One thing I don’t need to check is this: “Leave out the orange juice talk.”

What he meant by that is the boring conversations we have every day. Continue reading

Characters speak like real people

New writers’ manuscripts are often marked by unrealistic dialogue. Many things can go wrong in characters’ speech, but this is one of the biggest. If the characters’ conversations sound fake, readers will drop out quickly.

Conversations are natural and realistic.

When I say natural, I refer partly to the idea, mentioned last week, that a character’s background and personality will be reflected in their speech.

One fault I often see in manuscripts from people who spent too much time in academia is a lack of contractions. Continue reading

Give characters distinct voices

Editors talk a lot about voice, and it’s a tricky thing to get a handle on. For one thing, there is an authorial voice; that is, each particular author has their own writing style that comes through regardless of the setting or topic of each novel. I prefer to think of that as writing style—though there’s got to be a better term for that—and preserve voice for talking about characters and narrators.

If you are writing in deep POV, your narrative should carry the same voice as the POV character. If you are not writing in deep POV, avoid generic narrator voice and give the narrator a distinctive voice of its own. (See The difference between your voice and the character’s voice.)

Each character has a distinct voice suitable to their temperament.
Continue reading

When to use single or double quotation marks

Considering that the rules for quotation marks are relatively simple (I mean, compared to something really complicated like the comma), it’s surprising how often we see errors with them.

In dialog, stuff that’s said aloud goes in quotation marks. “I can’t believe she said that.” (Stuff that’s not said aloud is sometimes set in italics.) Simple enough. Few writers struggle with that.

using quotation marks

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Single quotes are used when you have a quote within a quote: “I can’t believe she said ‘irregardless.’” There are a few other publication styles that call for single quotes—for example, a lot of newspapers use them in headlines because they take up less space—but a quote within a quote is about the only time most writers need to use single quotation marks. Continue reading

Simplify dialogue tags

The way writers tag dialog is often evidence of how experienced they are. New writers frequently make dialog tags more complicated than they need to me. The classic example is the flagrant use of “said bookisms,” those awkward constructions reminiscent of Tom Swift.

“I love Old Faithful,” she gushed.

Such constructions are usually misguided attempts to avoid repeated use of “said.” The worst I’ve ever seen in a published book:

“Hello,” she greeted.

That line would never have survived a Word Weavers critique group meeting. Continue reading